Wiley Austin Branton, Executive Director of VEP, 1962-1965

by Allison Hughes, Archival Assistant, Voter Education Project Collection, Atlanta University Center

“Working for Freedom: Documenting Civil Rights Organizations” is a collaborative project between Emory University's Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library, The Auburn Avenue Research Library on African American Culture and History, The Amistad Research Center at Tulane University, and The Robert W. Woodruff Library of Atlanta University Center to uncover and make available previously hidden collections documenting the Civil Rights Movement in Atlanta and New Orleans. The project is administered by the Council on Library and Information Resources with funds from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Each organization regularly contributes blog posts about their progress.

Wiley Austin Branton was a native of Pine Bluff, Arkansas. Born in December of 1923, the World War II veteran attended Arkansas A.M. & N. College where he earned a degree in Business Administration. After graduating from Arkansas A.M. & N. College, he attended the University Of Arkansas School Of Law where he earned his Juris Doctor.

He practiced law in Arkansas and served as Chief Counsel for the black plaintiffs in the Little Rock School Case. This case thrust him into the national spotlight. From here, Branton was elected to serve as the first executive director of the Voter Education Project (VEP).

When the Southern Regional Council decided to form VEP, several prominent Civil Rights leaders, including Martin Luther King, Jr. and Roy Wilkins, gathered to decide who would head up the project. By a unanimous vote, Branton was elected to direct the new operation. Under his leadership, VEP registered over 600,000 black voters in the eleven southern states. VEP also provided momentum to get the Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed.

In 1965, Branton left the Voter Education Project to take a position as the executive director of the President’s Council on Equal Opportunity and help coordinate the implementation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. After the Council was disbanded later in 1965, Branton was asked to serve as a Special Assistant to Attorneys General Nicholas Katzenbach and Ramsey Clark at the Department of Justice.

After his departure from the Department of Justice in 1967, Branton served as director for the United Planning Organization. Following his service to this organization, he was chosen to head up the social action program of the Alliance for Labor Action. He also joined with other lawyers to create the law firm Dolphin, Branton, Stafford and Webber. In 1977 it was announced that Branton would take over as Dean of the Howard University School of Law, a position he held for five years before joining the firm Sidley and Austin.

Wiley A. Branton died in 1988 of a heart attack.